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Pine nuts are the edible seeds of pines (family Pinaceae, genus Pinus). About 20 species of pine produce seeds large enough to be worth harvesting; in other pines the seeds are also edible, but are too small to be of value as a human food.
In Europe, pine nuts come from the Stone Pine (Pinus pinea), which has been cultivated for its nuts for over 6,000 years, and harvested from wild trees for far longer. The Swiss Pine (Pinus cembra) is also used to a very small extent.
In Asia, two species are widely harvested, Korean Pine (Pinus koraiensis) in northeast Asia (the most important species in international trade), and Chilgoza Pine (Pinus gerardiana) in the western Himalaya. Four other species, Siberian Pine (Pinus sibirica), Siberian Dwarf Pine (Pinus pumila), Chinese White Pine (Pinus armandii) and Lacebark Pine (Pinus bungeana), are also used to a lesser extent.
In North America, the main species are three of the pinyon pines, Colorado Pinyon (Pinus edulis), Single-leaf Pinyon (Pinus monophylla), and Mexican Pinyon (Pinus cembroides). The other eight pinyon species are used to a small extent, as are Gray Pine (Pinus sabineana), Torrey Pine (Pinus torreyana) and Sugar Pine (Pinus lambertiana). In the United States, pine nuts are mainly harvested by Native American tribes; in many areas, they have exclusive rights to the harvest.
In the United States, millions of hectares of productive pinyon pine woods have been destroyed due to conversion to grazing lands, and in China, destructive harvesting techniques (such as breaking off whole branches to harvest the cones) and the removal of trees for timber have led to losses in production capacity.
Pine nuts contain (depending on species) between 10–34% of protein, with Stone Pine having the highest content. They are also a source of dietary fibre. When first extracted from the pine cone, they are covered with a hard shell (seed coat), thin in some species, thick in others. The nutrition is stored in the large female gametophytic tissue that supports the developing embryo (sporophyte) in the centre. Although a nut in the culinary sense, in the botanical sense pine nuts are seeds; being a gymnosperm, they lack a carpel (fruit) outside.